Somehow, carrying the snails falls to me. With the boatload of wrapped presents and scarves and gloves that will be lost within eight steps out into the street and small children who may likewise need carrying and possibly be misplaced in a momentary panic, I hoist two stacked platters of Burgundy snails.

They have been prepared in parsley and garlic butter to be recooked at my in-laws’ house. It’s more than a little dumb that I’m arriving with this particular dish because I’m the only one of the group not from around here. Not only not from Burgundy, where I helped pull these snails out of a dewy meadow this past July and where their cold weather preparation is the crowning regional specialty, but I am not of this nation. I’m not of this culture or even this particular coterie of exempted taste buds. The only thing I ever did with snails, before landing abroad, was proceed at their pace.

Last year, at the age of eight, my daughter left a letter for Santa Claus by the fireplace (along with some carrots and cookies). She said she knew she was fortunate and didn’t need anything herself besides maybe a good long book series or two. She said she’d like to communicate with Santa at the North Pole all year, if possible. Other than that, she wished for all the unfortunate kids to get presents and for it to snow everywhere on Christmas Day.

To her astonishment, Santa wrote back. Here’s what he said (in a script font):

Dear M. Fishman,

Thank you for your letter. Since I am very busy, I have had to dictate my reply to one of my elves. I apologize for his poor handwriting.  I will answer your requests one by one.

First, the North Pole is only open one magical day per year, and we’re very busy that day, so there is no way to contact me directly.  I’m sorry.

Second, there is only so much snow to go around, so it can’t snow all over the world on Christmas.  Everyone has to take turns.

Third, I just gave my last long book series to a little girl who is much less fortunate than you. So maybe your parents or your grandparents will give you one.  Either way, the important thing is that you keep reading everything you can.

Finally, Santa does his best for the poor children all over the world. But even Santa doesn’t have the power to help everyone all the time. That’s why it’s important for you to have a kind heart and to help the poor people of the world yourself whenever you get a chance.  I know I can count on you to do so, because the elves tell me you have one of the biggest hearts in the world.

Be good always and remember: love is not measured in gifts or other material things, but in the way we treat all those around us, especially when it is hardest to do so.

Love,

Santy Claus

This year, at age nine, she writes again:

Dear Santy Claus,

I enjoyed hearing from you. This year I decided to type this on my computer to show you something, your elf has quite neat handwriting, see it’s as good as the computer can do! Any how, I really would like to know a bit about this elf who is writing my letters for you. I’d really like to know his name, his favorite color, it’s gender, it’s favorite thing to do, and it’s favorite job that it does at your work shop! I don’t want any thing for Christmas except a letter back and some answers to some questions that I will soon list. Actually, I know I’m very fortunate and am not in big need of this, but if you could get me some more doll house things and a french bulldog puppy for my mom (this is not very important just a thought) that would be excellent! I want to tell you a few things about your letter…

First, I completely understand that the North Pole is only opened one day, and I’d like to know where you live when you are not there? At the beach perhaps?

Second, it’s a cool fact that snow can’t fall all over the world! Can you make it snow where ever you want or does mother nature do that?

Third, I think it’s really great that you give your biggest things to the less fortunate people. I feel so happy for the girl you gave your last long book series to! I wish her and all others less fortunate than I a merry Christmas this year!

And last, I love that you try your best with the poor and less fortunate, and as I grew older I realized that nobody can change anybody else’s lives except their own lives. And that is a very unfortunate thing on this earth.

The second letter is for Mrs. Claus and the elves. Please give it to them. I hope you take some treats home for Mrs. Claus and the elves but I hope you enjoyed the ones you chose for your self. This year once again we have some carrots for the reindeer, but if they like something else please tell me so in your letter back so I can get the treat for next Christmas. Hope you have no trouble with getting stuck in the chimney!

Love,

M. Fishman

Dear Mrs. Claus and elves,

Do you all work a lot on Christmas Eve? Does Santa have an iPad? What do you guys (gals) want for Christmas? How many reindeer do you all own? Do you ever ride them? What are their names? What does Rudolph’s (if you have a Rudolph) nose look like? Is it hot? Can you use it as a lightbulb? Do you guys (gals) ever do another job besides work for Santa? I’m really proud of all of you for doing such a good job!

Love,

M.

And Santa replies:

Dear M. Fishman,

How nice that you keep writing to me and what wonderful questions from such a little girl.  But wait!  I just realized that you are a pretty big girl by now.  I have so many children to follow that I lose track of their ages sometimes.

Last year I discovered that my writing elf was cheating by using the computer’s script font instead of writing by hand.  Ah, well.  What’s Saint Nicholas to do?  There are so many letters to answer that I can hardly blame the little fellow.

This year, my writing elf is so busy, in fact, that Mrs. Claus has had to help out.  She’s taking dictation while I tack up my sleigh.  If we make a mistake, please forgive us.  Tacking up takes lots of attention, and if I get just one little strap out of order the sleigh won’t fly and the presents will be late!

So, to your questions.  The elf’s name is a secret, I’m afraid.  We don’t give out elf names because we don’t want them to be overwhelmed with individual requests.  His favorite color is red, which is the favorite color of all elves.  His favorite thing to do is to make toys, of course, especially Wii games.  Sometimes it makes him sad to know that Nintendo takes credit for all the Wii games he makes, but I remind him that forgiveness is in the spirit of the season — well, so long as they’re not on the naughty list.

Now, with regard to your feedback on my letter…

First, when I am not at the North Pole, I am at the South Pole.  With my big belly and my thick beard, hot places are not for me.

Second, I cannot make it snow wherever I want and I’ve no time to worry about that, as I’m busy coordinating toy delivery for a big world.  Everyone has their own job on Earth — it’s called compartmentalization.

Third, the little girl in question did indeed love her long book series.  Thank you for being so understanding.

Last, you’re right that no one can change anybody else’s life but their own.  Yet I must add that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show compassion for those who are having problems making those changes.

Now, with regard to Mrs. Claus, I will answer for her, as she is not authorized to communicate with anyone but elves.

First, yes she does work on Christmas Eve.  She slaves over a wonderful stew that she cooks in a great cauldron for me and the elves.  We never touch a drop of it until the last present is delivered in Kamchatka. (No iPads, by the way.  I keep everything in my head.)

Second, the number of reindeer is classified information.  Also, I can’t say anything about their names except that the man who wrote that silly poem got almost every one wrong.  Shows what he knew!

This whole thing about Rudolph has also gotten blown way out of proportion.  Poor thing just had a little shine there from moisture and that was years ago.  I fly above the clouds, where the visibility is always perfect, and the moon guides me. No need for lightbulbs or glowing noses.

And, no!  You can’t ride reindeer.  They’re too small.  A man of my size would crush them.  (That goes for Mrs. Claus, too.)

Finally, yes, I do have another job.  You may see me most days in the off-season, sitting at my—

Whoa!  Uh-oh!  The last bit of tack just slid under the last keeper and off we go!

Merry Christmas to all and to all — aw, you know the rest, kid.

Love,

Santy Claus

When I was sixteen, I became the dishwasher at a barbecue restaurant in Corpus Christi, a hot, humid city on the Coastal Bend of Texas. I almost didn’t get the job because the manager of the place, Gary, didn’t like me. Gary was a short, grizzled fellow in his 40s who ran his restaurant with a smoker’s voice and an iron fist. I was a skinny kid from the suburbs, apparently naïve, and he didn’t think I knew how to work.

The restaurant was a rectangular building made of painted concrete blocks and a flat roof. Attached to the building proper was a “pit room,” which was a fenced-in area covered by a slanted roof made of corrugated steel. A screen was pinned between the top of the fence and the roof to keep bugs out. There were three cylindrical barbecue pits, ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, which had been made from sections of oil pipeline. Each had three doors: Behind the bottom door was the fire, and behind the top two were grates where we cooked racks of pork ribs and whole beef briskets. The briskets and ribs continuously rained liquid fat upon the fire, causing it to flare on occasion, so you had to pay close attention to the air supply to make sure you didn’t burn what you were cooking.

The only reason I got the job at all was because of the restaurant owner, Kenny. Kenny was Gary’s younger brother. He was more financially successful than Gary and fancied himself as a privileged guy. My family wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but we were closer to the middle class than Gary or the rest of the employees there, and Kenny seemed to like that about me. I think he enjoyed having a “college boy” around, which is what they all took to calling me after I graduated from high school the next year.

For six hours a day on weekdays, and eight on the weekends, I stood in front of a stainless steel sink with an overhead water sprayer in my hand and cleaned dishes and pots and pans. When I wasn’t at the sink, my job was to separate tiny chunks of beef from long strips of leftover brisket fat. These tiny chunks eventually added up to a plastic tub of flesh that we mixed with barbecue sauce and called “chopped beef.” Being so intimate with the fat, this was the most tender meat in the brisket and tasted wonderful on a sandwich bun. It was the second most popular item we sold. But that meat sat on a table, unrefrigerated and uncovered, for hours, and no one who worked there would eat it.

Once a week, each of the barbecue pits had to be cleaned, because the constant rain of fat and grease coated the grates and the interior circumference of the pit. The way we cleaned the pits was to set them on fire. Literally. We removed the meat, opened all three doors, and started a big fire. The fire fueled itself on the caked-on grease and would climb all the way to the top of the pit. As the fire grew we shut first the bottom and then the middle door, leaving the top door open until we could see flames licking at the top. Then we’d shut that door with a long gardening tool that looked like a straightened hoe. As the fire raged inside, flames ten feet high, the air hole at the very bottom would hiss as oxygen was sucked through it. That was the sound of the fire breathing.

Eventually we’d suffocate the fire and allow the pit to cool slightly, and then it was the dishwasher’s job to climb inside and scrape loosened grease off the walls. I was the dishwasher, so that meant me. As you can imagine, it was massively hot in there. Hot and nasty. When I emerged from the pit, the only surface of my body not entirely black were the whites of my eyes. Even after fifteen minutes scrubbing with soap in the filthy kitchen bathroom, I could only begin to find the pink skin of my arms and face.

Eventually, after a couple of years, I worked my way up to the Head Cook job. This was much easier. Mainly you stood in the pit room and listened to music. Or smoked weed if that was your thing. Or you fantasized about which of the serving line girls you wanted to sleep with. I was still a virgin, but I nevertheless imagined that Brenda, she of the giant D-cup breasts, would one day saunter into the pit room and seduce me. She was thirteen years my senior, and the stories about her exploits with older men at the restaurant became my imaginary porn. There was no Internet back then and my family didn’t subscribe to Cinemax, so what else was I supposed to do?

In the morning, the cook on duty would take briskets, forty or fifty of them, out of the walk-in freezer and load them into one of the pits. Then he would take a natural gas “torch” and use it to start a new fire. The torch was a half-inch natural gas line with a metal fitting on the end. It took forever to light a fire this way, like thirty minutes on a good day. We didn’t have kindling, after all. Just mesquite logs.

As it happened, the morning of December 24, 1989 was my shift. Residents of Texas and other areas of the south may remember 1989 as one of the coldest Decembers on record. The low that morning at Corpus Christi International Airport was 15 degrees, which was actually two degrees warmer than the previous morning. The palm trees were not happy. It was so cold the thermostat in my truck’s coolant system froze stuck on the way to the restaurant, causing the engine to overheat. So I was late to work and already pissed off when I got there. I had no patience to watch a feeble natural gas flame ignite eight mesquite logs, especially not when Brenda stepped into the pit room and asked if I would help her carry a pot of barbecue sauce into the kitchen.

I never worried about the burgeoning fire. It was 15 degrees outside, so I figured if anything the logs would take longer than normal to ignite. Brenda and the other girls were inside, and I was happy to chat them up about whatever. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another two hours, so Gary the crotchety manager was still at home in bed. Everything was good.

This is why, when we heard someone banging on the front door, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Even when he yelled, “The pit room is on fire!” my brain didn’t want to make the connection. I’d only been inside for five minutes, maybe ten. Nowhere near enough time for a fire to start.

Still, I took off for the back door. My heart begin to hammer in my chest. What if the pit was on fire? It was fully loaded with briskets. Hundreds of dollars worth of briskets.

I reached, the door, yanked it open, and what I saw was a monster.

Flames were pouring out of all three open doors. The pit was ten feet tall, remember, and the slanted roof was only another three or four feet higher. The flames from the top door had already burned a hole in the corrugated steel. From my vantage point, the open doors blocked me from most of the heat, but I knew what I had to do–get those doors closed. If I didn’t, the whole pit room would burn down. Maybe the entire restaurant.

I found the hoe-like tool and approached the pit. The heat was immense. Overwhelming. Even protected by the steel doors I could hardly approach it. And my efforts to close the doors were futile. They wouldn’t move. When I pushed on them, the fire pushed back. It was a live thing, that fire. It roared at me.

This angle was never going to work, so foolishly I decided to try another tactic. I walked around pit #3 and approached the burning pit head on. This was a big mistake. Without the doors to protect me, I was exposed to the full force of the fire, which immediately flash-burned all the exposed skin on my body. It was like standing on the surface of the Sun. I retreated. I stood back and watched flames consume the briskets, watched the fire climb through the hole in the roof. I imagined the entire restaurant would burn to the ground, all because I had stupidly left an open flame unattended.

Eventually the fire department arrived and sprayed water everywhere. When they were gone, the pit still stood strong, but the briskets were a charred, soaking mess. They were lost. The 80-quart plastic ice chest, the one we stored cooked briskets in, was melted like candle wax. I was devastated.

Gary arrived a few minutes later, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he sent me home. But somehow he didn’t. A few minutes later, the owner, Kenny showed up. He pulled me aside and told me not to worry. The fire wasn’t negligence on my part, he said, because I’d been inside helping the girls. He called my mistake a “hustling error.” Which was partly true and partly not, so I still felt terrible.

Later that evening, after the restaurant closed, we held a Secret Santa Christmas party. I was in a sour mood and not interested in exchanging presents. All I wanted was to go home. But eventually someone handed me a wrapped box, which I reluctantly opened. What I found inside finally made me smile.

It was a toy fire truck.

After I finished college and moved to Tulsa, I drove my girlfriend to Corpus to show her where I had grown up. I was especially excited to take her by the restaurant, since I had told her many horror stories about that place. But as we approached the parking lot, I could see something was wrong. Where the building should have been, there was just a pile of ground-up asphalt

We went somewhere else to eat, and after we ordered, I pulled the waitress aside and asked her if she knew what had happened to the barbecue restaurant.

She nodded gravely, as if I were inquiring about the dead.

“Yeah,” she said. “It burned down.”

One of the great tragedies of childhood was my inability to harness the forces of witchcraft. It wasn’t for lack of trying. You have no idea how many times I stared at my homework and wiggled my nose, hoping to cause math problems to magically solve themselves, how many times I urged the kitchen dishes to become spontaneously clean with a snap of my finger. For years I was convinced the problem had to do with sound effects, or more specifically a lack of them. On “Bewitched,” whenever someone cast a spell, it was invariably accompanied by the sound of a harp or a bell or both. My spells were devastatingly silent.

For years my grandfather, Irwin Alton Simpson, recited this poem every Christmas Eve, usually after a few shots of whisky. I’m not sure of its origin or when and where he first heard it, but he was an advertising man in Manhattan and, later, the Ad Director for the St. Petersburg (FL) Times, so he knew a ton of bawdy jokes and dirty limericks. (This poem is pretty tame compared to some he knew.)

After he died, the torch was passed to my father, Richard Irwin Simpson, who did an equally fine job, as he was also an ad man. He still recites the poem, even if it’s sometimes over the phone. James Irwin Simpson, that’s me, will be the next torch bearer.

With much love on this Christmas Eve, I share with you all this poem.

 

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the prison and the warden was walking the halls

Shouting ‘Merry Christmas, prisoners!’ and the prisoners replied, ‘Balls!’

This made the warden quite angry and he swore by all the gods,

‘You shall have no Christmas pudding, you dirty lowdown dogs!’

Then up spoke one old prisoner with face as hard as brass,

‘Warden, you can take your Christmas pudding and shove it up your ass!’